In 2021, a two-way Texas star moved from the Lone Star State to Durham. Her name: Celeste Taylor, the No. 6 recruit of the class of 2019, a three-time gold medalist with USA Basketball and a Longhorn standout who helped lead them to the Elite Eight.
Despite the brand new system she had to adjust to, Taylor did not slow down in her first season with the Blue Devils. She led the team in minutes per game, rebounds per game and steals per game, as well as finishing in the top three for points and assists per game. Her versatility was astounding, to say the least.
Taylor now heads into her second campaign at Duke and will be paramount to the success of this team. For the second-straight year, the senior guard was named to the watch list of the Ann Meyers-Drysdale Award for the nation’s top shooting guard. With her talent and experience, the expectations for her coming into the season are massive. If there is one player, however, that is primed to meet or even shatter those expectations, it is Taylor.
The head of the snake
“Cut off the head of the snake” is a common military phrase, because without the head, the rest of the body can’t function and the snake quickly goes from threatening to harmless. During the Blue Devils’ 2021-22 season, Taylor was the head. Once her shoulder injury cut her off, the rest of the team was mightily weakened.
It was Jan. 9, at Syracuse, and only a couple minutes before halftime when a white and orange jersey ran straight into Taylor’s shoulder and brought her down. You could see the pain exuding from Taylor, as she had to be helped off the court. At the time, Duke was the No. 17 team in the country with an 11-2 record, including statement wins over then-No. 17 Notre Dame and an Iowa team that finished the season ranked No. 8.
The season was looking bright, and, led by Taylor, the Blue Devils were looking like legitimate threats in the ACC. They even went on to convincingly beat the Orange and move up to No. 16 in the following AP Poll. But, with Taylor out the next seven games, a plummet was inevitable. You could even see it almost immediately after her Syracuse exit; Duke was outscored by three in the second half despite outscoring their opponents 23-10 in the second quarter.
It only got worse from there. Through their next seven games without Taylor, the Blue Devils went just 2-5, dropping to 13-7 and out of the AP Poll. Even beyond the team’s record, Taylor was the cog that kept the team together and the engine that kept them running. The value she brought to the court helped shape the Blue Devils’ identity, and, without her, they lost it. By the time she came back, the damage had already been done. Their momentum had vanished, and the confidence of this new and surprising team had been crushed. Even once Taylor returned, Duke finished the season 4-6.
So why exactly did the Blue Devils fall off so drastically without her? The answer is in how they fared in their turnover battles. Turnovers were always a major issue for the team, and Taylor’s presence did not have much of an effect on their turnover rate. However, Duke only lost the turnover battle twice in its last seven games before her injury, then lost every single one in the following seven games she was injured.
The difference in the Blue Devils’ ability to force turnovers was astronomical. Their opponents coughed up the ball 16 times per game in the stretch before Taylor’s injury, then just 9.3 times in the stretch that she was out. That is nearly a seven-turnover swing on a nightly basis, going to show just how remarkably valuable Taylor is on the defensive end. Duke’s defensive edge with her on the court is what made it such a dangerous team through the first half of last season. If they want a similarly strong start, they will need that same edge, and it will, once again, start with Taylor.
The heart of a competitor
Defense wins championships, and it is where Taylor shows her heart. That is where her intensity is at its peak and her impact at its most profound. But what is it exactly that makes her so dominant on that end of the floor?
Let us ask ourselves: What shapes any elite defender? Does it start with size and athleticism? Taylor, an oversized guard at 5-foot-11 with a long wingspan and explosiveness on the court, certainly has both. That is not, however, where it starts. The root of it all begins at the heart. What all elite defenders have in common is an ever-burning competitive spirit, and Taylor’s is unrivaled, a characteristic that she takes from her mother.
“My mom is very much so independent. I've seen her fight through the toughest struggles, obstacles,” Taylor said at Duke's media day in October. “So just seeing that and growing up around someone as strong as her definitely just instilled in me to be independent, to be strong, to fight through adversity.”
Fight through adversity she has. Throughout last season she had to adjust to a huge role at a brand new program, as well as having to fight back from a devastating shoulder injury mid-season. Then, on the court, she is always the first to dive for loose balls on any given possession and sacrifice her body for the sake team.
Her defense goes beyond her team-leading 4.2 defensive rebounds per game, and her combined 2.3 steals and blocks per game. It is also her intangibles that are invisible to box scores, but clearly pop out when you watch her with your own eyes. She has the heart of a competitor that beats so loudly that it can shift the tone of any environment whenever she steps foot on the hardwood.
The voice of a leader
Taylor’s intensity is contagious. Heading into her fourth—and likely final—year of college basketball, she has the responsibility of being a leader for the Blue Devils. The voice of a leader, however, does not always have to be spoken words. Taylor leads by example, and her vigor on the court does all the talking.
“I think the biggest thing is leading by example,” Taylor said. “I think that once you see somebody giving it everything that they got, and you see somebody hawking the ball from one baseline down to the other, the people behind you, they just get hungrier, they want to be there. They want to help you, they want to dig down deep and get that stop just as bad as you do.”
Duke has eight new players on its roster, three of which are incoming freshmen. This is also just head coach Kara Lawson’s third year coaching the program, so this team is still raw. Therefore, Taylor’s leadership will be a huge factor in dictating just how far they can grow and go. She is embracing that role heading into this season.
“I think that every year, it tends to get easier just because I know what I'm doing,” Taylor said about being a leader. “I know what my coaches are looking for me to do, and how I can impact the team, and the things that I can give to the team in order to help them grow.”
She added, “Helping the freshmen understand that there's going to be some bad days as freshmen, we're going to go through some slumps together, at the end of the day, it's going to be together.”
Togetherness is the key to success for this team, and Taylor is the glue that makes that possible. This is a huge season for her. She is fully healthy now and has become well accustomed to Duke’s system after a year under Lawson. She has the trust of her coach and the respect of her teammates. She is hungry with grand individual and team ambitions, such as getting drafted to the WNBA and competing for both a national and ACC championship. The foundation is set for this two-way star to shine brighter than ever before this season, and you can bet her competitive spirit will not stand for anything less.
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